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(From The Catholic Observer, March 4 2005)

By Mark E. Rondeau

WILLIAMSTOWN — Pope John Paul II has pointed the way in the past 10 years toward a major theological rethinking of the Catholic Church’s traditional acceptance of the legitimacy of capital punishment.

E. Christian Brugger, philosopher and theologian, explored this issue in a Feb. 9 talk at Williams College. His 2003 book, Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition, is published by Notre Dame Press. According to a flyer for the book, Brugger concludes “that a philosophically consistent, doctrinally sound framework and vocabulary can and should be developed for rejecting the death penalty in principle.”

At the start of his talk, Brugger noted noted that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won election on a platform which included restoring the death penalty in the state.

“He appointed a couple years back a panel of eleven experts, and he charged them with the task of proposing to him a system that would be ‘fail-safe’ — free of flaws,” Brugger said, noting that about 118 death row inmates have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1985. “And after the panel returned its recommendations last spring, he said this is the ‘gold standard’ for capital punishment systems. And it will be a standard for not only Massachusetts but for all of the states in the country.

“And so as proud citizens of Massachusetts it’s no doubt on your mind, the question...‘What if we could deal with the problem of innocence? Would we defend the death penalty or would we still oppose it?’ ”

Brugger said he is not a death penalty activist but a philosopher and theologian first and foremost.

“I’m interested in the theoretical question and the ethical question: ‘Is it right to do this? Should the state be killing criminals?’ ” he said. “So I’m going to approach it tonight from within my tradition of faith.”

He noted that the audience doubtless consisted of Catholics, non-Catholics, and non-Christians.

“I would invite you to enter into the conversation tonight because the place that the Catholic Church has held in Western history for the last 20 centuries is so prominent that it factors into your thinking even if you’re not Catholic. What the Catholic Church does affects the social scene,” he said. “And you know that if you followed the death penalty debate of the last 15 years.

“It’s the one controversial moral issue where the Pope and the ACLU both agree on its conclusions, and Amnesty International and the European Union. And they’ll employ the name of the Holy Father as on their side,” he said. “So what I’d like to talk to you tonight is about what’s gone on within the Catholic conversation.”

In this area, what John Paul II has said and written has puzzled some rather traditional Catholics.

“The funny thing is that it’s more traditional Catholics who find what’s been happening under John Paul II most difficult to resonate with. And why is that? Well, traditional Catholics tend to be sensitive to the sort of collective voice of the Church’s tradition,” he said. “And the Church’s tradition has overwhelmingly defended the death penalty. Not just in a mousy way, but in a thick, boisterous way the Church has defended capital punishment since apostolic times.

“And so those who are keenly aware of the voice of tradition, when they hear John Paul II stand up and say, ‘effectively the death penalty’s immoral in the modern world’...They think to themselves, ‘Where’s that coming from? It sounds more like the voice of sort of western liberal democracies but not my Church.’ ”

The Christian Church began with a capital punishment: of Jesus of Nazareth. But this and the early persecution of Christians did not lead to rejection to the death penalty in theory by the Church.

Brugger followed the course of Catholic thinking on the death penalty in the 2000 years since. This teaching affirmed the theoretical legitimacy of capital punishment. Abolition of the death penalty became an issue of Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, who also happened to be anti-Christian. This led the Catholic Church and others to reject abolition of the death penalty in large part because of who was urging it, he said.

“So as we get to the 20th Century, what we have is almost a unanimous voice in defense of capital punishment over the ages. It’s a very powerful witness,” he said.

This changed with the 1970s when a floodgate of opposition erupted from the Catholic bishops of the United States. Pope John Paul II emerged as a staunch opponent of the capital punishment. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, or The Gospel of Life, the Pope wrote that society should only exercise capital punishment when there is no other way to defend society.

“Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,” he wrote.

Said Brugger, “Essentially, he said it’s no longer legitimate to exercise the death penalty in the modern world.”

The influence of this 1995 doctrinal teaching of the Pope can be found in the difference between the 1992 preliminary version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the final 1997 version.

The 1992 edition of the Catechism acknowledges as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to inflict retributive punishments commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding the death penalty for crimes of extreme gravity.

But the 1997 version of the Catechism — in line with the Pope’s 1995 encyclical — dropped retribution as justification for the death penalty.

“They don’t put in a positive statement rejecting retribution as an aim. They just sort of retire it,” Brugger said. “That’s how the Church works when it sort of wants to introduce development into its doctrinal teaching.”

None of the Williams students, or others present, strongly objected to Brugger’s argument. Rather they engaged him in often deep theological discussions on certain points of interpretation and doctrine.

Brugger is an assistant professor of theology at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, located in Arlington, Va.

The talk was sponsored by the Philosophy Department, the Chaplain’s Office, Students for Social Justice, and Williams For Life.

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